Questions for Sylvia Brown


About Sylvia

  • Tell us a bit about yourself.
    • I am the eldest of the 11th generation of Browns in Rhode Island. Brown University was named after my family 40 years after its founding as the College of Rhode Island. My ancestors were among the 30 families that funded the start-up. The Browns gave land and a building, and used their influence to ensure that the College of Rhode Island would open a permanent campus in Providence rather than in Newport. And the reason they had the money and status to do this was due to their success as merchants in an Atlantic economy which relied on the slave trade. Of course I regret this uncomfortable fact, and it inspires my work today. Nothing can erase the past, but we learn from the past to make thoughtful choices to effect positive change in the present. Personally, I am very concerned about the 45 million slaves in the world today – far more than in the 18th century – and the political and economic instability that is pushing thousands of people each week into the hands of traffickers. I was attracted to development economics from an early age. After I got my Master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania, I pursued a career in various aspects of international development, from Wall Street to serving the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Ten years ago, a course in strategic philanthropy redirected my focus to the nonprofit sector and eventually prompted the return to my Rhode Island roots. My husband, Andrew West, is British, and we divide our time between Providence and London.
  • Is your work in philanthropy a way of atoning for the mistakes of your ancestors?
    • Every family is made up of stories it can be proud of, and stories it wishes had never happened. We all have skeletons in our family closets – I just happen to know what mine are. I do not believe it is useful or even possible to atone for mistakes made by ancestors. What I do believe is that we all have an obligation to ask ourselves hard questions about making the biggest possible difference in the world today.
  • What philanthropic activities do you participate in today?
    • After many years of involvement through funding, volunteering and board service in a variety of causes, I have directed my philanthropy towards helping others to give more effectively. This is the best way I know to leverage my time and resources. Uplifting Journeys is a course I developed that takes families to places around the world that provide authentic, living case studies. We teach parents and their children fundamental skills for “good giving” so they can return home inspired and equipped to give more thoughtfully to any cause.

About The Book

  • Why did you write Grappling with Legacy?
    • Grappling with LegacyThirteen years ago, I was seated in a packed auditorium at Brown University for the inaugural public event of the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. One of the speakers came up to the podium and said, “There were no good Browns.” That felt like a punch in the stomach. First of all, I had no idea what she was talking about. I had grown up admiring my family’s commitment to public service. Had I been wrong? Had I missed something critical? I needed to know what the truth was; I needed to understand who these ancestors really were. Well that quest took twelve years, and resulted in this book. What started with research on one generation of my family in the 18th century evolved into a much bigger story – the story of why Americans give to charity, which forms such a crucial part of our national identity. So by studying the evolution of my family over eleven generations, I was able to study the evolution of how Americans think about helping others.
  • Why this title? What are you “grappling” with?
    • We are all grappling with our legacy – whether it’s your relationship with your parents or – as in my case – when you happen to know what your ancestors were up to 400 years ago. Part of our legacy is what we have in our DNA, but the other part is what we choose to do with the values and examples that our families have instilled in us. One of the key themes I study in the book is how children choose – or not – to live up to the expectations of their parents. There is a lot of grappling happening there.
  • What impact do you hope your book will have?
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